Wet Magic/Chapter 12
THE QUEEN of the Under Folk sat with her husband on their second-best throne, which was much more comfortable than their State one, though not so handsome. Their sad faces were lighted up with pleasure as they watched the gambols of their new pet, Fido, a dear little earth-child, who was playing with a ball of soft pink seaweed, patting it, and tossing it and running after it as prettily as any kitten.
"Dear little Fido," said the Queen, "come here then," and Fido, who had once been Cathay, came willingly to lean against the Queen's knee and be stroked and petted.
"I have curious dreams sometimes," said the Queen to the King, "dreams so vivid that they are more like memories."
"Has it ever occurred to you," said the King, "that we have no memories of our childhood, of our youth—?"
"I believe," said the Queen slowly, "that we have tasted in our time of the oblivion-cup. There is no one like us in this land. If we were born here, why can we not remember our parents who must have been like us? And dearest—the dream that comes to me most often is that we once had a child and lost it—and that it was a child like us—"
"Fido," said the King in a low voice, "is like us." And he, too, stroked the head of Cathay, who had forgotten everything except that she was Fido and bore the Queen's name on her collar. "But if you remember that we had a child it cannot be true—if we drank of the oblivion-cup, that is, because, of course, that would make us forget everything."
"It could not make a mother forget her child," said the Queen, and with the word caught up Fido-which-was-Cathay and kissed her.
"Nice Queen," purred Cathay-which-was-Fido, "I do love you."
"I am sure we had a child once," said the Queen, hugging her, "and that we have been made to forget."
Even as she spoke the hangings of cloth of gold, pieced together from the spoil of lost galleons, rustled at the touch of someone outside. The Queen dried her eyes, which needed it, and said, "Come in."
The arras was lifted and a tall figure entered.
"Bless my soul," said the King of the Under Folk, "it's the Professor of Conchology."
"No," said the figure, advancing, "it is the King of the Mer-people. My brother King, my sister Queen, I greet you."
"This is most irregular," said the King.
"Never mind, dear," said the Queen, "let us hear what his Majesty has to say."
"I say—Let there be peace between our people," said the Mer King. "For countless ages these wars have been waged, for countless ages your people and mine have suffered. Even the origin of the war is lost in the mists of antiquity. Now I come to you, I, your prisoner—I was given to drink of the cup of oblivion and forgot who I was and whence I came. Now a counter-charm has given me back mind and memory. I come in the name of my people. If we have wronged you, we ask your forgiveness. If you have wronged us, we freely forgive you. Say: Shall it be peace, and shall all the sons of the sea live as brothers in love and kindliness for evermore?"
"Really," said the King of the Under Folk, "I think it is not at all a bad idea—but in confidence, and between Monarchs, I may tell you, sir, that I suspect my mind is not what it was. You, sir, seem to possess a truly royal grasp of your subject. My mind is so imperfect that I dare not consult it. But my heart—"
"Your heart says Yes," said the Queen. "So does mine. But our troops are besieging your city," she said, "they will say that in asking for peace you were paying the tribute of the vanquished."
"My people will not think this of me," said the King of Merland, "nor would your people think it of you. Let us join hands in peace and the love of royal brethren."
"What a dreadful noise they are making outside," said the King, and indeed the noise of shouting and singing was now to be heard on every side of the Palace.
"If there was a balcony now where we could show ourselves," suggested the King of Merland.
"The very thing," said the Queen, catching up her pet Fido-which-was-Cathay in her arms and leading the way to the great curtained arch at the end of the hall. She drew back the swinging, sweeping hangings of woven seaweed and stepped forth on the balcony—the two Kings close behind her. But she stopped short and staggered back a little, so that her husband had to put an arm about her to support her, when her first glance showed her that the people who were shouting outside the Palace were not, as she had supposed, Under Folk in some unexpected though welcome transport of loyal enthusiasm, but ranks on ranks of the enemy, the hated Mer Folk, all splendid and menacing in the pomp and circumstance of glorious war.
"It is the enemy!" gasped the Queen.
"It is my people," said the Mer King. "It is a beautiful thing in you, dear Queen, that you agreed to peace, without terms, while you thought you were victorious, and not because the legions of the Mer Folk were thundering at your gates. May I speak for us?"
They signed assent. And the Mer King stepped forward full into view of the crowd in the street below.
"My people," he said in a voice loud, yet soft, and very, very beautiful. And at the words the Mer Folk below looked up and recognized their long-lost King, and a shout went up that you could have heard a mile away.
The King raised his hand for silence.
"My people," he said, "brave men of Merland—let there be peace, now and forever, between us and our brave foes. The King and Queen of this land agreed to make unconditional peace while they believed themselves to be victorious. If victory has for today been with us, let us at least be the equals of our foes in generosity as in valor."
Another shout rang out. And the King of the Under Folk stepped forward.
"My people," he said, and the Under Folk came quickly forward toward him at the sound of his voice. "There shall be peace. Let these who were your foes this morning be your guests tonight and your friends and brothers for evermore. If we have wronged them, we beg them to forgive us: if they have wronged us, we beg them to allow us to forgive them." ("Is that right?" he asked the Mer King in a hasty whisper, who whispered back, "Admirable!")
"Now," he went on, "cheer, Mer Folk and Under Folk, for the splendid compact of Peace."
And they cheered.
"Pardon, your Majesty"—it was Ulfin who spoke—"it was the stranger Francis who first conceived the Peace Idea."
"True," said the Mer King, "where is Francis?"
But Francis was not to be found; it was only his name which was presented to the people from the balcony. He himself kept his pearly coat on and kept the invisibility button well pressed down, till the crowd had dispersed to ring all the diving bells with which the towers of the city were so handsomely fitted up, to hang the city with a thousand seaweed flags, and to illuminate its every window and door and pinnacle and buttress with more and more phosphorescent fish. In the Palace was a banquet for the Kings and the Queen and the Princesses, and the three children, and Cathay-who-was-Fido. Also Reuben was called from the command of his Sea Urchins to be a guest at the royal table. Princess Freia asked that an invitation might be sent to Ulfin—but when the King's Private Secretary, a very intelligent cuttlefish, had got the invitation ready, handsomely written in his own ink, it was discovered that no Ulfin was to be found to receive it.
It was a glorious banquet. The only blot on its rapturous splendor was the fact that Cathay still remained Fido, the Queen's pet—and her eyes were still those cold, unremembering eyes which her brothers and sister could not bear to meet. Reuben sat at the right hand of the Queen, and from the moment he took his place there he seemed to think of no one else. He talked with her, sensibly and modestly, and Francis remarked that during his stay in Merland Reuben had learned to talk as you do, and not in the language of gypsy circus-people. The Commander-in-Chief of the Forces of the Under Folk sat at the left hand of his King. The King of the Mer Folk sat between his happy daughters, and the children sat together between the Chief Astrologer and the Curator of the Museum of Foreign Curiosities, who was more pleased to see them again than he had ever expected to be, and much more friendly than they had ever hoped to find him. Everyone was extremely happy, even Fido-which-was-Cathay, who sat on the Queens lap and was fed with delicacies from the Queen's own plate.
It was at about the middle of the feast, just after everybody had drunk the health of the two Commanders-in-Chief, amid tempestuous applause, that a serving-fish whispered behind his fin to the Under Folk Queen:
"Certainly," she said, "show him in."
And the person who was shown in was Ulfin, and he carried on his arm a pearly coat and a scaly tail. He sank on one knee and held them up to the Mer King, with only one doubtful deprecating glance at the Curator of the Museum of Foreign Curiosities.
The King took them, and feeling in the pocket of the coat drew out three golden cases.
"It is the royal prerogative to have three," he said smilingly to the Queen, "in case of accidents. May I ask your Majesty's permission to administer one of them to your Majesty's little pet. I am sure you are longing to restore her to her brothers and her sister."
The Queen could not but agree—though her heart was sore at losing the little Fido-Kathleen, of whom she had grown so fond. But she was hoping that Reuben would consent to let her adopt him, and be more to her than many Fidos. She administered the charm herself, and the moment Cathay had swallowed it the royal arms were loosened, and the Queen expected her pet to fly to her brothers and sister. But to Cathay it was as though only an instant had passed since she came into that hall, a prisoner. So that when suddenly she saw her brothers and sister honored guests at what was unmistakably a very grand and happy festival, and found herself in the place of honor on the very lap of the Queen, she only snuggled closer to that royal lady and called out very loud and clear, "Hullo, Mavis! Here's a jolly transformation scene. That was a magic drink she gave us and it's made everybody jolly and friends—I am glad. You dear Queen," she added, "it is nice of you to nurse me."
So everybody was pleased: only Princess Freia looked sad and puzzled and her eyes followed Ulfin as he bowed and made to retire from the royal presence. He had almost reached the door when she spoke quickly in the royal ear that was next to her.
"Oh, Father," she said, "don't let him go like that. He ought to be at the banquet. We couldn't have done anything without him."
"True," said the King, "but I thought he had been invited, and refused."
"Refused?" said the Princess, "oh, call him back!"
"I'll run if I may," said Mavis, slipping out of her place and running down the great hall.
"If you'll sit a little nearer to me, Father," said Maia obligingly, "the young man can sit between you and my sister."
So that is where Ulfin found himself, and that was where he had never dared to hope to be.
The banquet was a strange as well as a magnificent scene—because, of course, the Mer-people were beautiful as the day, the five children were quite as pretty as any five children have any need to be, and the King and Queen of the Under Folk were as handsome as handsome. So that all this handsomeness was a very curious contrast to the strange heavy features of the Under Folk who now sat at table, so pleasant and friendly, toasting their late enemies.
The contrast between the Princess Freia and Ulfin was particularly marked, for their heads bent near together as they talked.
"Princess," he was saying, "tomorrow you will go back to your kingdom, and I shall never see you again."
The Princess could not think of anything to say, because it seemed to her that what he said was true.
"But," he went on, "I shall be glad all my life to have known and loved so dear and beautiful a Princess."
And again the Princess could think of nothing to say.
"Princess," he said, "tell me one thing. Do you know what I should say to you if I were a Prince?"
"Yes," said Freia; "I know what you would say and I know what I should answer, dear Ulfin, if you were only a commoner of Merland . . . I mean, you know, if your face were like ours. But since you are of the Under Folk and I am a Mermaid, I can only say that I will never forget you, and that I will never marry anyone else."
"Is it only my face then that prevents your marrying me?" he asked with abrupt eagerness, and she answered gently, "Of course."
Then Ulfin sprang to his feet. "Your Majesties," he cried, "and Lord High Astrologer, has not the moment come when, since we are at a banquet with friends, we may unmask?"
The strangers exchanged wondering glances.
The Sovereigns and the Astrologers made gestures of assent—then, with a rustling and a rattling, helmets were unlaced and corselets unbuckled, the Under Folk seemed to the Mer-people as though they were taking off their very skins. But really what they took off was but their thick scaly armor, and under it they were as softly and richly clad, and as personable people as the Mer Folk themselves.
"But," said Maia, "how splendid! We thought you were always in armor—that—that it grew on you, you know."
The Under Folk laughed jollily. "Of course it was always on us—since—when you saw us, we were always at war."
"And you're just like us!" said Freia to Ulfin.
"There is no one like you," he whispered back. Ulfin was now a handsome dark-haired young man, and looked much more like a Prince than a great many real Princes do.
"Did you mean what you said just now?" the Princess whispered. And for answer Ulfin dared to touch her hand with soft firm fingers.
"Papa," said Freia, "please may I marry Ulfin?"
"By all means," said the King, and immediately announced the engagement, joining their hands and giving them his blessing in the most businesslike way.
Then said the Queen of the Under Folk:
"Why should not these two reign over the Under Folk and let us two be allowed to remember the things we have forgotten and go back to that other life which I know we had somewhere—where we had a child."
"I think," said Mavis, "that now everything's settled so comfortably we ought perhaps all of us to be thinking about getting home."
"I have only one charm left, unfortunately," said the Mer King, "but if your people will agree to your abdicating, I will divide it between you with pleasure, dear King and Queen of the Under Folk; and I have reason to believe that the half which you will each of you have, will be just enough to counteract your memories of this place, and restore to you all the memories of your other life."
"Could not Reuben go with us?" the Queen asked.
"No," said the Mer King, "but he shall follow you to earth, and that speedily."
The Astrologer Royal, who had been whispering to Reuben, here interposed.
"It would be well, your Majesties," he said, "if a small allowance of the cup of oblivion were served out to these land children, so that they may not remember their adventures here. It is not well for the Earth People to know too much of the dwellers in the sea. There is a sacred vessel which has long been preserved among the civic plate. I propose that this vessel should be presented to our guests as a mark of our esteem; that they shall bear it with them, and drink the contents as soon as they set foot on their own shores."
He was at once sent to fetch the sacred vessel. It was a stone ginger beer bottle.
"I do really think we ought to go," said Mavis again.
There were farewells to be said—a very loving farewell to the Princesses, a very friendly one to the fortunate Ulfin, and then a little party left the Palace quietly and for the last time made the journey to the quiet Iswater where the King of Merland had so long professed Conchology.
Arrived at this spot the King spoke to the King and Queen of the Under Folk.
"Swallow this charm," he said, "in equal shares—then rise to the surface of the lake and say the charm which I perceive the Earth children have taught you as we came along. The rest will be easy and beautiful. We shall never forget you, and your hearts will remember us, though your minds must forget. Farewell."
The King and Queen rose through the waters and disappeared.
Next moment a strong attraction like that which needles feel for magnets drew the children from the side of the Mer King. They shut their eyes, and when they opened them they were on dry land in a wood by a lake—and Francis had a ginger beer bottle in his hand. The King and Queen of the Under Folk must have said at once the charm to recall the children to earth.
"It works more slowly on land, the Astrologer said," Reuben remarked. "Before we drink and forget everything I want to tell you that I think you've all been real bricks to me. And if you don't mind, I'll take off these girls' things."
He did, appearing in shirt and knickerbockers.
"Good-bye," he said, shaking hands with everyone.
"But aren't you coming home with us?"
"No," he said, "the Astrologer told me the first man and woman I should see on land would be my long-lost Father and Mother, and I was to go straight to them with my little shirt and my little shoe that I've kept all this time, the ones that were mine when I was a stolen baby, and they'd know me and I should belong to them. But I hope we'll meet again some day. Good-bye, and thank you. It was ripping being General of the Sea Urchins."
With that they drank each a draught from the ginger beer bottle, and then, making haste to act before the oblivion-cup should blot out with other things the Astrologer's advice, Reuben went out of the wood into the sunshine and across a green turf. They saw him speak to a man and a woman in blue bathing dresses who seemed to have been swimming in the lake and now were resting on the marble steps that led down to it. He held out the little shirt and the little shoe, and they held their hands out to him. And as they turned the children saw that their faces were the faces of the King and Queen of the Under Folk, only now not sad anymore, but radiant with happiness, because they had found their son again.
"Of course," said Francis, "there isn't any time in the other world. I expect they were swimming and just dived, and all that happened to them just in the minute they were underwater."
"And Reuben is really their long-lost heir?"
"They seemed to think so. I expect he's exactly like an ancestor or something, and you know how the Queen took to him from the first."
And then the oblivion-cup took effect—and they forgot, and forgot forever, the wonderful world that they had known underseas, and Sabrina fair and the circus and the Mermaid whom they had rescued.
But Reuben, curiously enough, they did not forget: they went home to tea with a pleasant story for their father and mother of a Spangled Boy at the circus who had run away and found his father and mother.
And two days after a motor stopped at their gate and Reuben got out.
"I say," he said, "I've found my father and mother, and we've come to thank you for the plum pie and things. Did you ever get the plate and spoon out of the bush? Come and see my father and mother," he ended proudly.
The children went, and looked once more in the faces of the King and Queen of the Under Folk, but now they did not know those faces, which seemed to them only the faces of some very nice strangers.
"I think Reuben's jolly lucky, don't you?" said Mavis.
"Yes," said Bernard.
"So do I," said Cathay.
"I wish Aunt Enid had let me bring the aquarium," said Francis.
"Never mind," said Mavis, "it will be something to live for when we come back from the sea, and everything is beastly."
And it was.